The man who created King Kong

Pictured: the Edgar Wallace pub, Essex St., ten minutes’ walk from Ludgate Circus. Dating from 1777, it was originally The Essex Head, and was renamed in 1975 to mark the centenary of EW’s birth.

This is the subtitle of Neil Clark’s 2015 biography of Edgar Wallace. Writing at the time of release of Peter Jackson’s version of the film King Kong, reporters for The Telegraph recounted of Wallace:

“As he arrived in Hollywood (in 1932), Ivor Novello (another West End regular) was just leaving, having also worked in Hollywood on a jungle movie – as a scriptwriter on Tarzan the Ape Man. Novello invited Wallace to his leaving party, but Wallace felt unwell, so declined. A couple of days later Novello boarded a train for the East Coast, only to find that he was being accompanied by Wallace – in his coffin.

He had died of pneumonia.”

Wallace was born in Greenwich on 1st April, 1875, to unmarried parents, Polly Richards and Richard Marriott, who were actors. Richard was the leading man of an acting company run by Marriott’s mother, “a cigar smoking woman of masculine appearance who specialised in playing male Shakespearean roles.”.

Edgar was brought up in the kindly foster family of Richard Freeman, a Billingsgate fish porter. He played truant from primary school to sell The Echo at Ludgate Circus, at the end of Fleet Street. Asked by a journalist years later to contribute to a celebrity feature entitled What I Owe My Parents, Wallace replied on a postcard: “sorry, cock, I’m a bastard.”.

After time as a soldier (when registering, he took his surname from Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur) Wallace began writing for the papers in 1899.

Duncan Campbell, reviewing Neil Clark’s biography, writes:

“Wallace was too old to serve in the First World War. The Kitchener ban on his frontline reporting did not stop him from churning out cringeworthy stories about conscientious objectors. For the magazine Town Topics he created the character of – ho, ho! – Private Clarence Nancy. “His portrayal of conchies…does him no credit at all,” concedes Clark, who portrays his subject as a man with a generous heart but some of the least attractive prejudices of his time.”.

Wallace was the first editor of the Rand Daily Mail, in 1902. The post lasted only nine months before he returned to London to cover crime for The Mail. Campbell writes:

“He was also dispatched on foreign assignments…

Sent to the Congo, he reported back on Belgian colonial atrocities – “the very laws of life are outraged” – but the Mail did not publish his damning reports because they did not fit its editorial line. In his 1926 autobiography, Wallace seems to misremember his own history and claims that criticisms of Belgium were due to German propaganda, which was the Mail line. “It’s disappointing,” notes Clark, “that he decided to go with the times and the establishment – and not with the truth.” “.

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